15 albums and 28 years in, R.E.M. continue to plough headlong into irrelevance. Truth be told they haven’t been essential for well over a decade, but that’s certainly not prevented them from churning out an ever growing collection of sluggish, lumpy and directionless records. Collapse is generating plaudits because a bunch of the songs on it sound like some of their older, better songs. What sort of measurement is that exactly? Sure, there are faint similarities between UBerlin and Drive and Oh My Heart could well be an Out of Time cast-off, but that’s as deep as it gets. There’s simply nowhere to go with such a comparison. And whilst Peter Buck’s decision to dust off the mandolin is praiseworthy (the jangle-heavy It Happened Today starts a mid-album peak of three decent tracks in a row) he’s far more enjoyable these days as a member of Robyn Hitchcock’s band, perhaps unbound by expectations. But a broader, more troubling question remains; who exactly are they making albums for anymore? ‘For themselves’ is a cop-out answer but it’s hard to imagine they’re picking up new fans with this formulaic middle of the road tosh and the rest of us are weary of making excuses for this band. Forgiving every half-baked retread of a humid summer long gone, every familiar descending arpeggio, every vaguely recognisable chorus and every blustering glam ‘rock’ number. It just doesn’t muster.
Whitesnake. For a decade between the late ‘70s and the end of the ‘80s that ludicrous moniker was a byword for by turns bluesy hard rock of the highest order and then swaggering, sleek and sexy hair metal that sold by the bucketload and, in the shape of one album – 1987’s 1987 – came to represent that much lampooned genre in all its blow-dried, power balladed finery. After 1989’s Slip of the Tongue ‘Snake main man David Coverdale lost his way a little – an ultimately ill-fated collaboration with Jimmy Page and a not entirely convincing solo album being the sum total of his output through the ‘90s – before, as so many of his peers before and since have decided to do, the man decided to have a go at recalling former glories with his old meal ticket. 2008 saw the release of Good to be Bad , an appealing attempt at mixing the two eras of Whitesnake, which was received with good grace by both fans and critics alike; its success left the door open for Coverdale to extend Whitesnake’s run a little longer, which brings us to 2011 and Forevermore . Put simply, Forevermore finishes with complete success the work started by its predecessor. A scintillating melange of everything that made (and make) Whitesnake the finest band of its type, Forevermore is the quintessential WS album. Equal parts bluesy bluster and screaming heavy metal thunder, there isn’t a second on this release that doesn’t leave the listener baying for more. This is the perfect hard rock album, and I bloody love it.
The decline of the singer/songwriter in modern music has received little attention. A rich tradition, stretching back far beyond the era of popular music and advanced by generations of troubadours and raconteurs, has seemingly been cast away in favour of electric instrumentation and the four-piece. Yet every so often, an artist will appear that refocuses attention, an artist that reminds us of the beauty of simplicity. Kurt Vile is such a man. A fresh faced 30-something resident of Philadelphia, Vile (his real birth name) has become somewhat of a musician’s musician. Smoke Ring For My Halo is his fourth full length release, and his second on the cult Matador label. What Vile delivers is his most coherent effort to date; an album that unhurriedly rambles through a landscape of dreamy bedroom pop that is both effortless and intricate. Featuring occasional appearances by backing band The Violators, Smoke Ring For My Halo is at its strongest when a solo Vile is left to his own devices. Peeping Tomboy is a perfect blend of stripped down guitar and narrative lyricism, and a welcome pause from the album’s more layered textures. Society Is My Friend sees Vile’s dreamy acoustic sound at its best: coloured by The Violators’ harshness and underpinned by straightforward vocals. A string of well constructed pop songs, Smoke Ring For My Halo is a pleasure to get lost in. Vile’s smooth vocals and songwriting ability provide hope that all is not lost.
Once frequently seen around Canberra as Zero Degrees and Falling, these power-poppers have acquired a shorter name and a sharper image. After forming in 2005, they worked like hell to raise their profile through organising all-ages concerts with big name headliners. This hard yakka finally paid off in spades when they drew the attention of a major label. With a big label comes big marketing. The CD cover art, with individually named photos, positively screams tween/young teen and much attention has gone into styling the ‘disarranged’ hair. However, the substance is much stronger than the image. While the target demographic is normally fed on loads of bland swill, Zero Degrees have delivered a punchy, genuinely stimulating sound, with crisp vocals, sing along lyrics, catchy melodies and danceable rhythms. Songs are more keyboard than guitar-driven, reflecting the band’s love of the sounds of the ‘80s. While the opener So Beautiful is the album’s highlight, Sweetest Melody is a beguilingly boppy little number and there are warm harmonies in the title track. Vocalist Ferdi expresses more genuine emotion in Redefine , which brings the tone closer to the sound of the band before they found fame. More goodies appear later in the track list, including All of Nothing and Torn Apart , which impresses with its electro rock vibe in the vein of Many Machines on Nine. Zero Degrees keep the pace fast throughout, avoiding the trap of the slow maudlin ballads that often appear in this genre (good call boys). Three stars.
Staying true to form may be difficult when every band member (apart from the frontman) changes. But Sparkadia’s second LP release retains their distinctive sound. By and large this sound is probably courtesy of Alex Burnett, the driving force behind Sparkadia. What’s changed since Postcards is that there is a little more oomph. Sparkadia deliver with more confidence and instrumental play. The added oomph could also be due in part to the work of producer Mark Tieku, who previously worked with Florence and the Machine. There are more than a few power ballads on The Great Impression . It’s nice to hear a little more rock and roll going on, particularly with the aggressive piano punching Shoot Straight . And Mary reveals Burnett’s bitter fury as he laments the debilitating emotional toll of relationships (with someone you love or even with the Catholic Church). But the power pop isn’t over the top like the more recent Kings of Leon albums. It’s smoothly tempered with slower anthems like Fingerprints and Fade from View , which would have suited the debut album were they not fluffed up a little more. Burnett said that the album was developed around London pop influences like CocknBullKid and La Roux, and also film scores. You really get a sense of that dramatic delivery from the moment the album begins. With an album as good as this it’s easy to see why Sparkadia are receiving plenty of international attention.
“ Bloke Folk”, it’s an intriguing term. Made up of two nouns which, taken as singular signifiers, bring to mind two very opposing images: a stubbies-wearing, Tooheys-toting, hairy, smelly man’s man; and the gentle, lilting tones of Appalachian mountain music. Yet under the hand of Matty Ellis, of The Ellis Collective, something is created which becomes entirely universal. Means What It Means is the debut album from the Canberra six-piece. It is an hour’s worth of intelligently crafted and achingly honest music: songs of heartbreak, loss, longing and self destruction. An eclectic mix of instrumentation (from guitar and drums, to Hammond organ, flugelhorn and saw) creates a musical layering that mirrors the layering of emotional intensity within the lyrics. Faultless harmonies combine with pizzicato-driven rhythmic tension, as we are propelled along the album’s journey. The penultimate track, Don’t Go (“…stay saving my soul”) ends with two minutes of silence. But just as we shakily exhale, reeling from the preceding songs, the hidden track begins. Guitar strikes up, echoed by simple and steady percussion, and at the heart of it all, Ellis’ raw, emotive and gutsy vocals. And it takes our breath away.
Melbourne band Oh Mercy has crowned themselves the kings of understated Australian pop with their second album Great Barrier Grief . Intent on mesmerising the mind instead of overwhelming it, the album opens with the pleasant marimba-driven melody of Stay, Please, Stay . Things get country funky with triple j favourite Keith St. (see if you can spot the Groove Armada vocal similarity!). Singer/songwriter Alexander Gow has zoned in on sweet, innocent melodies here, as he croons “I’m a single man / Don’t fuck up my plans” on the lounge lizard piano tinkle of Let Me Go whilst Blue Lagoon is tender and plaintive with syrupy slide guitar tendencies. Don’t be fooled by the production credit of Mitchell Froom (Crowded House) – Great Barrier Grief has so much more to offer than a potential discography mining of Neil Finn. The rhythm patterns evoke the simple, effective grooves of Fleetwood Mac – especially in On The Run and Hold Out Your Hand . Great Barrier Grief is not going to conquer the world with Gaga-like posture or a hardened rock edge, but it’s going to encourage people to pick up guitars and/or sing and play along. Album highlights include the sombre Mercy Valley and the spiralling melancholy of closing track Doldrums . When should you listen to it? Those long and lonely train rides when sweet, sweet music is your only shoulder.